Editorial: Is there room at the Inn for neighbors in need?

Anxiety and angst abound about the ongoing building boom that will add thousands of new units of rental and condo units along the Morrissey Boulevard corridor over the coming months and years. Neighbors, understandably, are worried about the impacts on the parkway’s already frail infrastructure, increased congestion, and the hazards that already imperil pedestrians and bicyclists.

But, an emerging proposal to convert an existing 100-room budget hotel into supportive housing for aging, formerly homeless men and women — most of them from our neighborhood— should not be penalized for any of that.

The first public airing of Pine Street Inn’s proposal to buy the five-story Comfort Inn in Neponset played out over Zoom on Monday evening and drew about 190 participants, many of whom learned of the project for the first time last week in these pages.

The plan is pretty straightforward. Pine Street, in partnership with a seasoned non-profit called The Community Builders, would buy the hotel and convert most of the rooms into studio apartments with kitchenettes. The first floor would be renovated to create office and common rooms for tenants to receive services from trained Pine Street social workers who would be on site 24-7, along with private security. Other than some improved landscaping, there’s no major work planned for the exterior of the building, which is situated between the boulevard, the Red Line tracks, and a Jiffy Lube service shop.

Right off the bat, however, several people on the call gave voice to fears of drug users, sex offenders, and other ne’er-do-wells running amok in their neighborhood, with several pointing to the proximity of the Murphy School across the boulevard as a grave concern.

But,as Pine Street’s Lyndia Downie patiently explained, this won’t be a homeless shelter. It will house people who must sign leases and follow rules. Pine Street takes great care in screening tenants for its supportive housing, which now includes nearly 1,000 units across Greater Boston. The average tenant age at 900 Morrissey would be 57 years old. And about 50 of them would be people already living in scattered sites across Dorchester. Since only one percent of Pine Street’s tenants have a vehicle, there will be fewer vehicular impacts on the site than there are now.

Some who spoke against the idea on Monday’s call struck a cold, nativist tone – “Where do you live?” – towards the people behind this project. That tone is misdirected. Pine Street is a proven quantity in this town, certainly far more responsive and invested in our community than any budget hotel chain.

Elizabeth Doyle, president of the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic group, noted that Pine Street has been a good neighbor in other parts of Dorchester. Plus, she added, the need to assist the unhoused isn’t some far-off problem. It’s on our doorsteps. “We care about homelessness, but we’re not so concerned about solutions. And this is one of the solutions,” she said.

The Pine Street-Community Builders proposal will need to secure a change-in-use permit from the city and, given the size of the existing Comfort Inn building, further review by the Boston Planning and Development Agency— a process that will allow for a full hearing to both proponents and critics. The city should expedite that review process and— if approved— the conversion of this hotel to safe and supportive homes for our neighbors in need.

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